WEST ORANGE, NJ - Rumor has it that a new celebrity is on the horizon in the person of the Rev. Terry A. Smith, pastor of The Life Christian Church in West Orange. Like megastar Joel Osteen, Smith has tremendous personal appeal and impresses his audiences as honest and caring. The comparison ends there, however. Where Osteen soothes and smooths, Smith just says it. Though he isn’t harsh, he isn’t in the business of selling sugar. He isn’t trying to talk anyone into anything; he just tells the truth as he sees it.
When asked about the possibility of becoming the next big star, Smith dismisses it. It’s not that he isn’t interested in it as a conversation, but it’s potential, not actuality, and therefore not pertinent to his life today. If it were to happen, he would be fine with it, he said, but because it would give him a larger audience for his message that focuses on how to make the world a better place.
It’s easy to see why people believe he is on the brink of celebrity; he is articulate and intelligent, and inspires immediate trust. He’s a man who wants people to be happy and fulfilled. He is exciting, but not in a frenetic way.
He’s a man with a message to deliver, but he doesn’t forget that he’s just a man, and he doesn’t let his congregation forget that either. Smith is a spiritual leader, but not an idol, and clearly he doesn’t want to be. “I’m kind of a Type A, high-voltage kind of guy. It’s the grace of God that makes me nice. I’m a sincere person, I’ve been faithful to my wife, my children, and I’m trying to do the right things in all areas of my life, but do I always have the right attitude? No. Don’t ever forget I’m just a man, just a human being.”
When we think about celebrity evangelists, it’s impossible to ignore the huge amounts of money involved, but Smith doesn’t mention money, and it seems not to be in his mind. He’s in the process of building a new church structure that will hold something near 2,000 people at its completion, but he doesn’t mention that either. The progress is important, but the trappings just don’t seem to be at the forefront of his thoughts. Surely the financial requirement of the goals he has set are significant, but as a means to an end as opposed to an end in themselves. While Smith hasn’t achieved celebrity status yet, he is so solid that it seems unlikely his head will be turned should it happen.
So what does he want? What is his goal? It’s a simple one. “I want to help people get better at life,” he said. He has written a book titled “Ten” that will be in bookstores in January 2012. It’s a self-help book on how to live a life that gets a rating of 10. “The book encapsulates my message. And though it will be on the self-help shelves in bookstores, it really could be called an others-help book.”
Smith thinks finding your own path to fulfillment helps you, and then helps others around you, and that’s part of God’s plan. “Stories from the book cause reaction; it speaks to how religion should affect society. Part of my philosophy is that we have to participate with God in continuing to work in the world, spreading beauty in the world. It’s considered self-help, but we can’t do it alone.”
The question he poses and answers in the book is how could a person live a more fulfilling and better life that he ever dreamed of? The answer, according to Smith, is, “By living the life that God dreamed for you. I think that it’s going back to what God purposed in his design of the world and of human beings. My theology/philosophy is that God put Adam and Eve in the garden to care for it, and to spread beauty through the world. Genesis says they were supposed to care for the earth, but the rest of the earth was not cultivated; they were supposed to multiply and spread the God image. Each person is supposed to be partnering with God to build the world God intended.”
For Smith, a relationship with Jesus is essential, but it’s not the only aspect of being a Christian. It’s a two-part process. “I think Christians are thinking about getting saved, and the focuses are personal relationships. I think we are also supposed to be partnering with God and doing his work in the world.”
Smith doesn’t assume a person is a Christian just because he claims to be; being a Christian means making certain choices, and those who judge others harshly or look down on people who don’t believe the same things are not Christian. He is not a person who encourages the embrace of everyone, regardless of behavior or attitudes. “Jesus didn’t,” he said. “Jesus had a lot of mercy for a sinner, but he did not have mercy for people with ‘religion.’ Look at how he felt about the Pharisees,” Smith said. “He would go and eat with them if he were invited, but he wouldn’t embrace them. We can’t accept that to which we should take exception,” he said. “I don’t think Christianity is curl-up-in-the-corner and ignore what’s going on in the world. I think we need to fight for things that are right. We need to find appropriate ways to withstand stuff. Jesus was not a nice little wimp. He was a strong man. I am opposed to wimpy Christianity.”
Smith has been actively speaking to the public since he was only 18 when he was approached to talk to youth groups. He traveled for 10 years, living most of his life on the road. He married at the age of 20, and still adores his wife almost 29 years later. Smith is a self-proclaimed family man and is committed to his marriage and the couple’s three children, now 25, 22 and 18. “I’m crazy busy, I work 60-70 hours a week, but if you want to talk about the thing I care most about, I’d have to talk about my family. I’m a family man, I love my wife, I love my kids. When my kids were growing up, I made sure we had a family day every week. My wife made sure that most nights we sat around the table and had dinner.”
Sharon Smith is quiet, Smith said, but not aloof. “She’s a people person, but one-on-one.” Nonetheless, she has been integral to the growth of the church that began 20 years ago, and today speaks to audiences and plans events. “My wife is a big part of what’s happened here in the last 20 years.”
Since their family is grown, Mrs. Smith has become even more involved, and is doing more public speaking, as well as taking more responsibility for church events. “We are having a huge ladies event and she’s planning it,” Smith said. She is also responsible for the decoration of his office which is not large, but handsome, intimate and comfortable.
One of Smith’s most engaging traits is his unwillingness to worry about what is unknowable. He is not impressed with Christians who argue that only Christians who believe in Jesus will make it to heaven, though he believes that the only path to God is through Jesus. “If there’s another way to God, then Jesus shouldn’t have died,” he said. But he is unwilling to make claims about such things. In fact, Smith is a thoughtful man, and is flexible because of it. He believes what he believes, and he believes in the message he delivers 100%, but he also is aware that there is much that is not in his purview; and so he doesn’t guess at the answers, then pass them off as true.
So when asked about the fate of nonbelievers, he said he just doesn’t know. He knows what he believes to be true, but stops short of threatening nonbelievers. “I hope that everyone finds a way to God. I don’t know about that [the fate of nonbelievers]. I know what I believe, I know what I teach, but I’m not interested in sitting as judge on any other human being. Some of the finest people I know are not people of professed Christian faith; I have wonderful Jewish friends. There is nothing I can do but appreciate them as the people they are, invested with tremendous dignity and capacity.”
For more information on The Life Christian Church, visit www.tlcc.org or call 973 731-7744. Read about the musical director for The Christian Life Church at http://thealternativepress.com/articles/making-a-connection-with-music.